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Republicans At War on Immigration -- Here's Why

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Earlier this week, the organization I head, America’s Voice, released a new report entitled, "The Power of the Latino Vote in America: They Tipped Elections in 2008; Where Will they be in 2010?"

The detailed findings highlight the many potential benefits – and potential perils – for both major political parties. The report tracks 40 races for 2010 in 12 states—29 U.S. House races, 8 U.S. Senate races and 3 gubernatorial races—and shows that Latino voter turn out as well as the candidates’ positions on immigration reform will a huge impact on the outcomes.

One finding is that Democrats have to deliver on their promises of change – on the economy and immigration – or risk a depressed base. To wit, just last week Mark DiCamillo of the highly-regarded Field Poll in California found that Senator Barbara Boxer's reelection could be in serious jeopardy if Latino turnout is low this November.

Republicans also face a steep challenge when it comes to Latino voters, and we are seeing this play out as a virtual war within the party on immigration.

The way immigration has been handled by most Republicans has badly damaged the GOP brand.  And while immigration is not the number one issue for most Latino voters, it is a defining issue.  So much so that an overwhelming 87% of respondents in a 2009 Bendixen poll said they would not consider voting for a candidate who was in favor of forcing most of the undocumented population to leave the country and only 23% trusted congressional Republicans to “do the right thing on the immigration issue.”

More recently, the opening night of the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville last weekend featured none other than former GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, who served five terms in Congress. He used the podium to espouse the vehemently anti-immigrant views that many Latinos associate with Republicans:

The opening-night speaker at first ever National Tea Party Convention ripped into President Obama, Sen. John McCain and "the cult of multiculturalism," asserting that Obama was elected because "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country."

The speaker, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., told about 600 delegates in a Nashville, Tenn., ballroom that in the 2008 election, America "put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House ... Barack Hussein Obama."

Tancredo then joined anti-immigration activist Roy Beck for an immigrant-bashing breakout session, focused on spreading the kind of lies about immigrants that would make Lou Dobbs proud:

Roy Beck, the executive director of Numbers USA, made the case that stopping illegal immigration was the key to solving most of America’s economic problems. “We imported the health care crisis!” said Beck. “Every year we import one to one and a half million immigrants, and most of them go on welfare.”

Look, anyone with half a brain knows that the collapse of the economy had more to do with the “masters of the universe” on Wall Street and in Washington than the people who clean their offices. And so-called experts such as Beck know better than most that immigrants tend to be hard-working family people who eschew welfare when possible (not to mention undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for welfare and legal residents have to pay taxes for a decade before becoming eligible for most benefits).

Politically, this attempt to “death panel” immigrants is just the sort of pandering by GOP luminaries that ends up further alienating recent citizens and Latino families who just happen to constitute the fastest-growing voting demographic in our nation.

Still, all is not lost for the GOP.  As the San Francisco Chronicle article on our Latino Voters report pointed out, smart Republicans still have a chance to yank their party back from the nativists.  Just five years ago, many socially conservative Hispanics – especially naturalized immigrants –supported President Bush in 2004 after the Bush-Rove team made it a priority to connect with these voters on both values and immigration.

The point is this: both parties should watch this dynamic very closely. Latino voters are no done deal.

Unbeknownst to most of the chattering class, the 2008 presidential race saw both candidates running Spanish-language ads focusing on immigration reform. Candidates Obama and McCain each tried to portray the other as unreliable on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.  Both campaigns understood that for the Republican candidate to win the presidency, he had to win 40% of the nationwide Latino vote.  McCain won 31%.

Let’s fast forward to today. According to a 2009 interview, Republican Mitt Romney now “believes that one way to attract more minorities to the GOP is to pass immigration reform before the next election, saying the issue becomes demagogued by both parties on the campaign trail."

Newt Gingrich, who considers himself a “top prospect” for 2012, has already set up a Spanish-speaking website, titled The Americano. No, it’s not a hot beverage. The site includes a description of its “principles” for immigration, which are a far cry from standard Tea Party fare. Today, The Americano featured our report with the headline: A Segment of the Latino Electorate is Clearly Up for Grabs in 2010. (Unfortunately, the post speculates its way out of actually dealing with comprehensive immigration reform...talk about split personality)

That brings us to Sarah Palin, who was the keynote speaker at the Tea Party convention. Unlike Tancredo, Palin never mentioned immigrants. And just a couple weeks ago, she was making friendly sounds on immigration.

Let’s be clear: none of these Republican presidential hopefuls are trustworthy on workable immigration reform nor are they where they need to be to get right on the issue.  What’s noteworthy is that their trajectory demonstrates their understanding that immigrant-bashing has hurt the party and that that they have to go in a better direction to be viable in 2012.  With an expanded Latino electorate, the Republican threshold may even be higher than 40%.

And then there’s the rising generation of Republicans who have an entirely different worldview. Meghan McCain has become the de facto spokesperson for that group, and she blasted Tancredo’s immigrant bashing during an appearance on The View. Check out the video (at Huffington Post). You’ll see her read Tancredo’s comments and charge him with “innate racism.”

McCain argues:

I think it’s why young people are turned off by this movement. And, I’m sorry, revolutions start with young people not with 65-year old people talking about literacy tests and people who can’t say the word “vote” in English. It’s ridiculous.

She’s right.  It is ridiculous.

Too bad too many Republicans are allowing such wingnuts to define the party.  And too bad too many Democrats are so scared of the same wingnuts.

Cross-Posted at America's Voice.